Damian Lillard’s Last Days in Portland? Where is James Harden going? NBA Free Agency Notes

Is this at long last the offseason Damian Lillard pushes his way out of Portland?

The next week or so looms extremely large on that front.

For all the focus on the Trail Blazers’ draft Thursday, with the widespread belief that he wanted them to trade the No. 3 pick in exchange for a star-level veteran as a way to keep him from asking for a trade, the it’s clear now that it was never quite that simple. There is a way back — however narrow it may be — for him to be satisfied with the Trail Blazers’ situation heading into next season. There is a little time left, although not much, and also a little patience. But the Blazers’ dire need to add elite talent remains.

Without it, it could be Lillard’s last days in the City of Roses.

Like Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin shared with the local media on Saturday, Lillard is expected to meet with Blazers officials after he returns from his recent trip to Paris. According to a source briefed on the situation, the meeting to discuss the next steps in the roster planning process will likely be early this week. After all, free agency (officially) begins on June 30 at 6 p.m. ET, and there’s a lot to consider on that front.

But while there’s all sorts of shared excitement over the additions of Scoot Henderson (at No. 3), Kris Murray (at No. 23) and Rayan Rupert (at No. 43), the source said nothing has changed about Lillard’s strong desire to play with the kind of high-level players that would make the Blazers contenders again. The youth movement, while impressive, is not enough.

So what would it take to convince Lillard that Portland is still the place to be for the rest of his NBA days? Here’s a solution known to be a dream scenario from Lillard’s vantage point: Re-sign forward Jerami Grant and add four-time All-Star/four-time champion Draymond Green in free agency.

While Golden State is known to be extremely confident in Green’s re-signing, the cost of his return will likely be a point of contention. Enter the Blazers, who can make Green the unofficial savior in this sensitive Lillard situation while giving him a chance to add to his legacy in another jersey after 11 seasons with the Warriors. Except for one (massive) problem: As is the case with so many of these scenarios, it would take some serious salary cap wizardry by Cronin to make this happen.

While the Blazers have Grant’s Bird rights and can thus re-sign him despite being over the salary cap, they currently do not have the cap space to sign anyone of Green’s ilk. Especially considering he’s likely looking for a deal in the mid-$20 million range annually. There are sign-and-trade avenues to be explored, and likely with a third team to be involved, but it’s an unlikely prospect to say the least. And again, all signs point to Green wanting to stay.

There are other (unlikely) options that would also suffice, among them the addition of either Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby from the Toronto Raptors. While league-wide interest remains high in both players, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has continued to reject the many suitors. The further you go down this list of potential ways to calm the Lillard waters, the more likely it seems that he will soon be forced to face this stay-or-go fork. In a holistic sense, the meeting between Lillard and the Blazers this week will have everything to do with what comes next between these two parties.

If Cronin and his staff are truly trying to scour the league for another star and heeding the message sources say Lillard has received from both Cronin and owner Jody Allen, then Lillard likely won’t make a final decision on how to play this. until the early stages of the free trade period have passed. But if they are not, as one latest ESPN report seemed to suggest, then the prospect of Lillard asking out may be just around the corner. Key questions like these will surely be at the heart of their meeting.

But if there isn’t a meeting of the Trail Blazers’ minds in Portland this week, and if the roster upgrades that are proving so difficult to pull off don’t materialize when the calendar turns to July and the crucial week that follows , it’s all eyes on Miami from there. Lillard actually has serious interest in joining the Heat, who would surely love to pair him with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. If it gets to that point — and there’s still an “if” here given all the times Lillard chose not to ask before — Lillard’s wishes would matter greatly because of the enormity of his contract.

With four seasons and a combined $216 million remaining on his deal (including a player option worth $63 million through the 2026-27 season), the prospect of a team trading for Lillard against his wishes is hard to fathom. So while he doesn’t have the kind of no-trade clause that played such a crucial role in the recent Bradley Beal trade from Washington to Phoenix, his impact in the situation is the same.

James Harden’s free agent situation is unique. (Bill Streicher/USA Today)

This James Harden free agent situation is one of the stranger ones I can remember.

At face value, it makes very little sense for the 10-time All-Star and former MVP to return to Houston instead of re-signing in Philadelphia. He forced his way out of a Rockets uniform in 2020, in large part because their title contention had been slammed shut. And even if he does return, and if another high-level player or two joins him in the form of the Rockets’ $60 million in cap space, you won’t find any objective viewers predicting said window reopening anytime soon .

Meanwhile, the Sixers offer the complementary services of a reigning MVP in Joel Embiid, a longtime ally and friend in president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, and a new coach in Nick Nurse, who has a championship resume and Rockets roots to boot (he was the franchise’s G League coach from 2011-13). And while their inability to break through to the next level of the playoffs has certainly sparked frustration, it’s indisputable that the Sixers would remain among the Eastern Conference elite if he stays. But as we wrote back in early March, there is an undeniable connection between Harden and that part of Texas, which may ultimately be the final factor in his decision.

But even beyond the stark contrast between the state of each franchise—an established Eastern Conference power vs. the rebuilding Rockets—it’s the leverage game that makes it all so compelling. Each team, it has shown at times, views the other as nothing more than a pawn whose main role is to help Harden get the biggest and best deal possible. Only Harden and his inner circle really know which way he’s leaning, but a source close to him reaffirmed that the Rockets remain a serious possibility. And yes, as you may have wondered, that’s still the case with Houston, who decided to add guard Amen Thompson out of the Overtime Elite program with the fourth pick (they also added forward Cam Whitmore out of Villanova at No. 20) .

Can Chris Paul and Steph Curry put their contentious pasts behind them to succeed in the immediate future? (Cary Edmondson/USA Today)

Chris Paul-to-the-Warriors thoughts

I shared a few thoughts on the Beal-to-the-Suns move last week, among them a look at the calculated role Chris Paul played in the revelation of Isiah Thomas’ unofficial role in the trade with the Suns. The point, then and now, is that Paul is nothing if not political. And now that he’s part of the Warriors’ plans, where Steph Curry & Co. clearly greenlighting the addition of another future Hall of Famer as they once again try to extend their dynasty window, this particular quality should serve him well.

At 38 years old and with the late career that he is about to play for his fifth team in the past eight seasons, Paul surely knows he has to find a way to fit into this Warriors core that once saw him as a top rival and now welcomes him (and yes, I assume for the purposes of this episode that Green will return). It no longer means Curry threw it “it’s not 2014 no mo” verbally sparring his way during a game against the Suns in March, or that Green said in no uncertain terms in a March 2020 interview that he “do not like CP at all” and that he “took it upon me to create a rift” (between them).” Ditto for the controversial and contentious shared history between them in 2011, when Paul’s refusal to agree to an extension with the Warriors was, which he has shared publiclythe only reason why Steph Curry and Klay Thompson was not sent to New Orleans (then-GM Larry Riley has denied that this ever happened).

This is a play-recognize-play kind of move, with a mutual desire to win it all and all sorts of recent evidence that these fighters could use the kind of skills that Paul has brought to the table for nearly two decades now. . At this late stage of their basketball lives, the present and their future matter much more than their past. And if Paul can somehow find a way to make a difference here — whether he wins his first title or not — it would be a late chapter worth mentioning as he finds himself stepping into the halls of Springfield, Mass.

It’s true that maybe Father Time is getting the best of him and making all this controversy — that’s the risk the Warriors have taken (while also shedding the Jordan Poole contract and cleaning up their books in a way that makes it much tastier to keep Green. ). But as our John Hollinger noted just a few weeks ago when he highlighted Paul’s BORD$ projection for next season at $36.8 million, the predictions of Paul’s demise may have been overstated. He led the league in assists just two seasons ago, and was tied one of six players last season averaged at least 13 points, eight assists and four rebounds.

None of that means this unexpected union will work, of course, but there’s certainly a chance it will. And Paul, who has shown an ability to adapt that served him well in Houston, Oklahoma City and Phoenix, is savvy enough to know he’ll have to do that more than ever this time around.

(Top photo of Damian Lillard: Sam Forencich / NBAE via Getty Images)

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